Consumer drones are not useful at all. But if you like gadgets, they are a must-have addition to your arsenal of unnecessary stuff

The last time I saw my drone, it had disappeared out of sight over my house. Towards the North Sea. The whirr of its rotor blades drowned out by squawking birds. It was out of my control, ignoring my commands — not to mention quite a few F-bombs.

I retreated indoors clutching the (now useless) remote control. How do you explain to the other half (or the other third, as I’m told to say) that you have just lost the birthday present they bought you for £600? Awkward.

How I loved that drone! Desire for a totally unnecessary gizmo is usually inspired by something unconnected. Until recently, I was on the UK board of a European real estate advisory company. We were huddled around a conference phone that makes everyone sound as if they’re in the bog, in a meeting room that can at best be described as drab. White melamine table, slightly uncomfortable stacking chairs that were fashionable in the ’90s and glass partitions inscribed with the word “inspirational” (only a property advisory firm could spend money on refurbishment and make the space worse).

Yet here we were discussing a pan-European advertising campaign that some not-so-bright spark thought should be inspired by drones. Something to do with having “complete vision”.

As Lord Sugar memorably said in his own boardroom, “I’ve written books on advertising. Cheque books.” Well, he would not have written a cheque for this. The only thing I was inspired to do after that meeting was to get a drone.

This actually proved quite useful at the next meeting. As anyone who has been on a board will know, you need some good chit-chat for the “before you get going, waiting for your CEO to turn up” part, and the “after they have left, when metaphorical blood is being wiped off the walls” bit. It is essential for relationship building. Cars and holidays are staples. New tech? That demonstrates your credentials in the digital world.

I had been dropping heavy hints to the other half (third) for months about how useful a drone might be. What fun to film from the air, or have one that follows you.

Of course, consumer drones aren’t useful at all. But if you like gadgets, they are a must-have addition to your arsenal of unnecessary stuff. Like a drum kit. Which my other third says was a useful gift. Brilliant gift, yes. But useful? I don’t think so.

Anyway, my birthday heralded the arrival of a £600 SimToo “follow me” Dragonfly Drone. The online reviews said this was the one. It folds, so you can take it on holiday. It has a 4K camera, making the picture quality superb. There’s an app to guide it via your phone or tablet. There’s even a watch that doubles as a controller. Powerful batteries, so it flies fast and for an extended time. My other third had thought of everything.

Yet three days after the present was opened, it still wasn’t in the air. Why? Because it was the most complicated thing I have ever owned (and that’s from someone who had an HP-12C calculator). The instructions were utterly confusing. Different components had to be set up, paired, charged and switched on separately. But I persevered.

The maiden flight didn’t go well. I almost flew it into a tree and its first landing was upside down on the grass. But I practised, and gradually mastered its idiosyncrasies. Oh you clever little drone. When we went on holiday, the drone came too. Majestically, he flew from the apartment car park high into the alpine skies. Taking wonderful photos and video (which we predictably plastered all over social media). This had become my all-time favourite present.

When, on a rather bleak day back in the UK, he bolted, I was distraught. Surely the fault must have been with the drone itself, rather than me? But here comes the lesson.

Buying things you don’t need online is very easy. Getting your money back when something goes wrong is much harder.

As you listen to the telephone options for an online retailer, do you ever think Oh. My. God. Just give me my money back? Please! No matter that this was an expensive product. In the online retailing world, personal service is barely existent.

If the drone had been bought from a shop, I could have marched back in. It’s important to march in these situations. No meandering, walk a little faster than usual and with purpose. Explain what’s happened in a tone of voice that is soft enough to be polite, but loud enough to ensure there’s potential for a commotion and a refund would have been secured. (My grandfather, a brilliant businessman and master shopper, taught me all I know about complaining and good customer service). But this was an Amazon purchase. There was nowhere to march in to.

When I started to explain my dilemma over the phone, it quickly transpired that I didn’t buy the drone myself. My other third then rang Amazon. They suggested that we claim on our house insurance. But the drone was faulty, we said. A second telephone call was more fruitful. Send it back, they said, and we’ll give you a refund.

But I can’t send it back; I said. It’s in the North Sea! We agreed to send back the parts that hadn’t launched themselves into the icy and bleak waters off the Essex coast, and they agreed to a complete refund.

The remnants were returned. Refund supplied. Job done. Until Amazon claimed the bits never arrived. Thankfully I’d kept the postage receipt. Always keep the postage receipt! Grandfather would have been proud.

You will note that we opted for a refund, rather than a replacement. To explain why, here are some of my thoughts about online retailing. You can buy just about anything online. I love the convenience, though the main aim is usually to secure a deal at the cheapest price. But what do we lose?

The answer is personal service. Large online retailers do offer customer service — though you might have to be persistent — but they cannot offer a truly personal service. This takes time, and costs money to provide. Clever algorithms and online reviews have gone some way to replace the valued, personal recommendation of an experienced salesperson. But it is not the same thing (we place a lot of trust in online reviews but they are often filtered, so you only see the positive ones).

With the money finally refunded, the other third and I consulted a specialist about what drone to buy next — the online drone specialist DJI (they also sell on the high street through various specialist camera and electrical shops). Be careful — if you look at their website you are going to want a drone. Badly. And you can obtain that elusive personal service by going to the “help purchasing” tab before you buy, and be put in touch with an expert.

Eventually, we plumped for the DJI Mavic Pro. It really is an intuitive masterpiece of technological engineering. Yes, it was nearly twice the price of my last drone. But as I said to the other third, if you’re buying a gift for the one you love, then it pays not to be tight.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax.Got a problem for James? Contact him at richpeoplesproblems@ft.com


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